Friday, February 25, 2011

Foreign Friday

Off-base Housing
Misawa, Japan
August 1979 - April 1980

It wasn't much to look at then and definitely isn't now. On-base and off-base housing was scarce, and when something came available, it was taken whether you liked it or not, and for the record I took it, but I didn't like it.

The front door went into a tiny utility room that housed a kerosene hot water heater and a minuscule washer and dryer. More about the hot heater later.

The utility room opened into the main section of the house where the living room and kitchen melded into each other. The galley kitchen was tiny. Notice how low the cabinet is by the stove. I'm 5'8" and really had to stoop to use the kitchen sink that was in that cabinet. The refrigerator was directly across from the stove, and the bathroom door was adjacent to the refrigerator. The bedroom was through the doorway between the stove and refrigerator.

The living room was also tiny. The object in the lower left corner of this photo was the heating source for the house - a kerosene heater. "Heater" is almost a misnomer for this object, as I nearly froze to death during the long winter. I don't think the house had much insulation.

All of the furniture in the house, except for the director chair - a gift from friends, was military issue. The amount of furniture allowed was determine by rank (yes, civilians were ranked, based on experience and education). Government service (GS) ranking determined everything (housing, salary, and even social status). In 1979 - 80, my classification was GS 11.

Now let's continue the house tour with the bathroom. Sorry, the door does not open all the way, as it is hitting the refrigerator. Some closets are larger than this bathroom. The shower stall was also a step-in tub. I don't advise trying to take a bath unless you like squatting. Do you see the small sign on the far wall? Shhh, don't tell my landlord, but I took it.

Self-explanatory, I think, but wouldn't it be fun to know what it says?

For some reason I didn't take a photo of the bedroom. Let's just say it was also tiny and just as dreary. Part of the reason the house seemed so depressing was the dark paneling and few windows. It was probably a good thing there weren't a lot of windows because the house would have been even harder to heat.

As I mentioned, the heater needed kerosene as did the hot water heater. The fuel was delivered by a tanker truck, and it was very important not to run out of fuel. Since I didn't speak Japanese and my landlord didn't speak English, it was difficult to coordinate the delivery of this precious liquid. One time I ran out of kerosene only to discover that one of the tanks had been leaking, an expensive discovery.

Side note: It appears that many homes in Japan are still heated with kerosene. Tanya, who currently lives in Japan, reflects a dislike of kerosene heaters in a recent blog post

Now about the hot water heater, it ran on kerosene and was extremely finicky. The wind would extinguish the flame at the base of the water tank. Relighting it required crumpling newspaper, setting it on fire, and dropping the ignited paper down the center of the tank to a basin that contained a pool of kerosene. Often it would not light on the first or even second try. One night, I tried numerous times to light the growing pool of kerosene at the base of the hot water heater. Then suddenly, in a loud WHOOSH, the kerosene lit, shooting flames out the pipe on the house roof, and it sounded like a jet plane was preparing for take-off. The chimney pipe from the hot water heater to the roof was glowing a brilliant orange. I truly thought the house would go up in smoke as I stood outside and watched.

I hated this house and wanted to move so badly, and I checked to see where my name was on the list for a BOQ (bachelor officers' quarters) apartment on-base every week. Whenever my name got close to the top of the list, new officers, ranking higher than me would transfer in and bump me down the list, lower than where I started in August. It was depressing and seemingly hopeless. I feared I would have to stay in this depressing house the entire year.


  1. I bet you celebrated when you were able to move to a new place.

  2. I can not believe how in-dependent you are...kerosene heaters yikes!

  3. I bet you can laugh about it now, but I am sure it was NOT funny then! thanks for sharing. BTW... how long DID you have to stay in it?


  4. Oh my word, Nancy!! I cannot believe what you endured!!! I am sure that the other positive experiences outweighed the negative, though.

  5. Looking back I bet it makes you thankful that you don't have to live there anymore...makes me thankful for my little comfy house ;)

  6. the good news is that you don't live there anymore!

  7. wow!!
    We lived in a Japanese house, tatami mat floors (dirt underneath), rice paper doors, and no yard, no heat, no ac. oh and HUGE jumping spiders!!! We lived there for 2 yrs before we could get base housing. I'm sure I have a picture somewhere but digging for it would take away from knitting time, lol.


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